Women and Mental Health and Power

Women and Mental Health and Power

By Helen Sneed

After I realized something was wrong with me, the first person to treat me was my GP. When I went to him, I was so thin from anorexia that my body would bruise if I lay on a hard surface. I had begun to have mini-convulsions because my body had no fat and was devouring muscle. My periods had stopped. I looked like a living skeleton. This doctor examined me and said I was the most malnourished woman he’d ever seen. But his only treatment recommendation was that I should eat more beef. Several months later, I almost killed myself and was hospitalized for the first time. One night I was at the nurses’ station getting the usual ton of medication. Someone came up behind me and tugged at the drooping waistband of my skirt. I turned around and it was my GP. He beamed at me and said, “You sure have kept that weight off!”

Born in the last century, I was a woman in a man’s treatment world. The great majority of psychiatrists and therapists were male, as they had been for centuries. Since then things have changed greatly, and this has had a strong impact on women and mental health. Given the fact that Valerie and I have recently posted Episode 36: Men and Mental Health, and Episode 38: Women and Mental Health, this seems like a good time to investigate what we learned about this fascinating, complex universe of women dealing with their mental health issues.

The history of women and mental illness is not for the fainthearted. The first woman’s disease was called hysteria, literally meaning “the womb.” Madness in women was determined to be caused in females who didn’t perform the strict obligations of a woman: to marry and bear children, and to be virtuous. First diagnosed by ancient Egyptians, hysteria in one form or another was believed to be a woman’s malady for 4000 years. It was not removed from the DSM until 1980. 

What is it like today for women with mental health issues? Valerie and I make a thorough investigation, beginning with the similarities and dramatic differences between men and women with mental illnesses. We examine how society’s roles can still impact diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. The contradictions bear examination and reveal amazing realities. For example, I had never known that most psychiatric medications were tested on men only! Given the female physiological differences, there’s much to learn about a drug’s impact on a woman. 

The therapeutic relationship between a woman and her therapist may be the cornerstone of recovery. This has certainly been true for Valerie and me. In some instances, a woman who has suffered sexual violence or abuse is uncomfortable working with a male therapist. This proved to be true in my case. Especially when a male psychiatrist initiated a sexual relationship with me that lasted for six years. Once I changed to a female therapist and psychopharmacologist, I became more productive and trusting in therapy. Valerie, on the other hand, began work with her male psychiatrist 30 years ago when she was severely, dangerously ill. She attributes him with saving her life and guiding her on the long road to a rich life in recovery. Since those early years, their relationship has continued to grow and flourish.

As Valerie and I know firsthand, the conditions in the role and treatment of women in the mental health field have grown into major changes for the better. To begin with, it’s more balanced between the genders, and there are now women doctors, administrators, therapists in leadership positions throughout the mental health care system. In this collaborative atmosphere, many female patients have become more proactive in their treatment and therapeutic relationships. We share with our listeners many exciting advances in medications, treatment plans, research, and breakthroughs in science and medicine. Valerie and I discover much to be hopeful for as we report these findings in the episode. 

It wasn’t easy to look back over 4,000 years of blaming the woman. Or to learn that a few centuries ago, I could have been burned for a witch! But this is our history and we’re moving forward. While not perfect, more chances for women exist today, so much greater than at any other time. More avenues for a woman to defend herself against discrimination, stigma, abuse. More personal power wrested from illness, bias, history. More strength and pride to fortify a woman dealing with her mental health challenges. The struggle for recovery requires just one woman to keep fighting. For herself. So much of it is about power. I became so sick because I was a powerless child. I was strong enough to build a wonderful life in recovery because I became a powerful woman. In order to survive, I had to.

“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” Maya Angelo